Tuesday 23 February 2010

Authors and Reviewers: Bullets and Valentines

Hi everyone,

Like many other writers I was fascinated by the spat last year between writer Alice Hoffman and the literary critic, Roberta Silman, who reviews for The Boston Globe. After a rather unflattering review of her book The Story Sisters, Ms. Hoffman mobilised her fan base on Twitter to show her displeasure and among other things called Ms Silman a "moron". Hoffman also supplied the reviewer's email address and phone number. She later defended this action by saying both were in the public domain.

Oops. Few things get authors more worked up than a bad review. You're calling my baby ugly? You're saying it has a squint? Bandy legs? A low IQ?

I don't approve of Ms Hoffman's "moron" remark - making it personal certainly won't help -- and forwarding the reviewer's personal details is not on. I've also just read the review again after sending the link on to another MySpace friend and to be fair, the review seems fairly mild and considered. However, I know well how helpless one feels when you receive a review which is blatantly unfair or was clearly written with the goal of showing off the reviewer's own piercing wit.

I recently received a stinking radio review in South Africa by a big name reviewer. The lady in question is in her late seventies and the world of the dojo and sweaty, muscled men obviously did not appeal to her. She advised me to go back to selling shoes, which was a job I held in my youth (selling shoes - now that's an adventure - food for another blog entry.) She also obviously found the book so intolerable that she couldn't bear to read it properly. The review was riddled with factual inaccuracies: a Keeper, I was interested to hear, is someone who keeps other people from growing old. I was reaching for my voodoo doll and pins, when fortunately, Monsters and Critics posted their review of Keeper. Ah yes, forget about music -- a flattering review is what soothes the savage breast. The voodoo doll went back in its drawer.

There is no doubt that the relationship between author and reviewer is a skewed one. Reviewers have the whip hand. As her Tweets show, Ms Hoffman is of the opinion that what is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander:
  1. Critics can say as they please, but no one else can? You open the door and it's open.
  2. An email to a reviewer is hate mail? But a hateful review is a love letter?"
  3. Interesting, reviewers can say what they want. But when writers speak up they're "going after" reviewers
These days authors have not only print reviewers to contend with, but also online critics. When my first novel, The Midnight Side, was published ten years ago, the only reviews I received were reviews in newspapers and magazines. Another four books later and my novels are reviewed by housewives, darkdeciders and bookiewookies. Today anyone can hang out a shingle and start reviewing. Newspapers are closing down their review pages as their stretched budgets can no longer carry the salary of a full-time literary editor or even an outside reviewer. The slack is being picked up online, and the entire landscape of book reviewing has become far more democratic - or anarchic - depending on your point of view.

How do writers feel about this? Well, from what I gather when I congregate with my fellow scribes at Society of Authors meetings (this is where we come to have a good moan and drink cheap wine) they have mixed feelings. On the one hand, they don't always relish being critiqued by eighteen year old college students or told off by women whose only credentials seem to be their fondness for reading and their astonishing ability to run through a gazillion books in a week. On the other hand, there is no getting away from the fact that some of the old school print reviewers were unashamed snobs. Certain kinds of books were simply not reviewed. Online reviews have given exposure to many authors who otherwise would never have received a look-in.

Before the online revolution, not just anyone could call himself a literary reviewer, of course -- it was a title to be coveted, but bestowed on only a few. These erudite gentlemen and ladies of the press would often have degrees in English or Comparative Literature and not only was their knowledge vast, but their own prose was superior. With a few deft words, the author's aspirations would either be skewered, or confirmed. Reviewers were posh. Here in the UK they were usually men and to this day, their names have resonance: Anthony Powell of Punch, Martin Amis of New Statesman, Terence Kilmartin of The Observer, Mark Amory of The Spectator. When my debut novel, Midnight Side, was picked for discussion by The Literary Review, I was awed to think that my novel was being critiqued in a publication that had Auberon Waugh at its head. Whereas a newspaper review is kitted out in a black tie, an online review can wear tattoos, nose rings or frilly aprons. I have to admit to rather liking the egalitarian vibe of online reviews. And make no mistake: some of these reviewers are very, very good. Despite their deliberately weird, "shocking" or cutesy monikers, they are highly talented readers and skilful interpreters of text. When I receive a good review from one of them, I feel as chuffed as if I've received a good review in the Daily Mail.

However, it is also true that many online reviews can be deeply amateurish and nothing is more amateurish than giving away the ending of the book. I'll never forget how sad I was to read the following about my book Windwalker:
How this book ever got called a romance book I will never know. Half way through the book the boy and girl still had not met much less kissed! And when they do meet Adam stay around for a few days and then poof he's dead. Now tell me what kind of romance is that!? If I had not been stuck on a plane I never would have finished reading this book.
In my own defense, my hero did not exactly go "poof": it was a far more elegant demise. But I agree with the reviewer - Windwalker is my darkest novel and should never have been marketed as a romance. And it should be noted that one of the reasons why Ms Hoffman was so incensed, was that Ms Stilman also gave away the ending. Very gauche of The Boston Globe. My South African reviewer went even further. She decided to read out loud the very last sentence of my novel and rather effectively destroyed the punch line of the book.

A review like the following, on the other hand, is fair:
(Mostert) built everything up about these two people destined to be together and they didn't end up together. It was probably supposed to be romantic and show how these characters grew and blah, blah, blah. All i got out of it was a loss of $7 and a headache.
Apart from the spoiler, I cannot really fault this comment, which was written by a reader who posted on Amazon. She paid good money for my book, it disappointed her and she has every right to say so, even if her analysis of my work is written in a rather free-wheeling style.

Reviews are, of course, always subjective. But some reviewers will give a bad review simply because they don't like the subject matter of the book. This is like a food critic who doesn't like chocolate giving a bad write-up to every single chocolate dessert he is served regardless of whether the dish succeeds in the chocolate department. This is unacceptable. Judge the book for what it is trying to accomplish. Is the writing superior? Is the plot tight? Even if you don't like ballet dancing transvestites, does the ballet dancing transvestite hero of the book convince as a character?

Then there is the question of skimming. If you are a reader, then it is your right to skim if the book doesn't hold your attention. But if you pin on a reviewer's badge and are sent free books by publishers, then there is no excuse for such laziness. One reviewer found herself unwilling to finish my book - (an indictment of the book itself, of course) -- but still posted her review and added kindly that she felt sure the story would pick up later on. This kind of thing would never be tolerated in a print review. Neither would mangled titles (Keeper of Light and Lust - not kidding here), and wild inaccuracies. Or comments that blatantly reflect the reviewer's own personal prejudices. If someone critiques my exposition or prose, this is something I can work with . But I am at a loss when I receive reviews criticising me for writing books that do not reflect "Christian values".

I should, however, stress that I am grateful for any reviewer taking the time to read my work. There are many authors out there looking for attention and if your work is picked for review, that is a compliment in itself.

Right, that was quite cathartic ! But let me know what you guys think? Do you pay attention to reviews? Do they influence what you buy? Do you make a distinction between online and print reviews?

And finally: I now have a newsletter. Yes, indeed - this is me getting organised. If you are interested in subscribing , here is the link:

www.natashamostert.com/newsletter/ I am also now on Facebook - please join me there:

Thanks guys. Hope you are all well and keeping warm. We have such grim weather here in London - the coldest in thirty years they tell us...


  1. Hi Natasha. I read three of your novels - Season of the Witch, The Keeper and Windwalker - and found them all fascinating. I do agree with you that Windwalker should have never been classed as a romance, it didn't do it any justice. I remember reading the review you mentioned before buying the book. If anything, it made me laugh. I was looking forward to this story where the "boy and girl" had the cheek to go half through the novel and "still had not met much less kissed". And I must admit, I wasn't dissapointed.

  2. I think you've made all the points I would have made. First being, a review is one person's opinion. A review may inspire me to check out a book I might have overlooked but would never deter me from reading one I thought might be interesting.
    And no one should ever review a book without having read it through. That is simply unfair.

  3. Eliza, thanks! Pleased you had fun with the books. And yes, I believe in unresolved sexual tension :-) And how great that this particular review actually made you buy the book. I can't complain about that!

    "Simply unfair" is absolutely right. This is probably my pet hate. As an author, John, you must have some war stories as well!

  4. Personally, I write reviews on my blog and only let myself be swayed by other blogger's reviews. I love Urban Fantasy and Young Adult novels and many times feel like the reviewers that are hired on at magazines or for newspapers just don't understand what I look for in a novel. However, I only let positive reviews sway me in favor of novels and many times will completely ignore negative reviews unless it is because of inappropriate content or the type of violence I just can't stomach. What a wonderful post! I decided to follow and am looking forward to what you post next.

    Emma Michaels

  5. So the snarky reviewer of Windwalker never read Romeo & Juliet?!

    I agree whole-heartedly with your assessment. As to reviewing, the reason I began reviewing was firstly to help promote my own writing and secondly (and perhaps more importantly in the long run), to offset the fact that all-too-many reviews are nothing more than a brief gushing recommendation or an equally brief dismissal. I try to give more in my reviews, but it’s a constantly wrestling match between that lofty goal, and drifting inadvertently into the mistake of giving way too much away.

    Unless I really understand and empathize with a given reviewer significantly ( which most of us typically do not, I’d guess), then I need more than a mere recommendation. I need to know what the story is about, how well it was written, and how interesting and/or original the characters are. I honestly don't even care if there are plot holes or flaws in the writing, if the writing itself transports me sufficiently!

    A negative review, if done well, could easily intrigue me enough to read the novel in question and a positive one could turn me right off. Or vice versa! I don't miss the traditional reviewers at all, since I typically paid little attention to them. I'd rather have people like me reviewing (like me in the sense that they’re just your common or garden reviewer). Yes, there are some skin-crawling reviewers out there employing appallingly poor spelling and grammar, including people who can’t even get the title right, let alone convey the details accurately, but I don't have a problem with mining that rocky terrain when I know I can unearth a few humorous and edifying gems which await us all over the Internet.